July 27, 2021

Jose Luis Vilson: Bob Moses and the Enduring Education Injustice

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Bob Moses occupied a unique and valuable position at the intersection of concerns about civil rights and education. Jose Luis Vilson, educator, author, and scholar, here reflects on the Moses legacy.

Everything people had to say about him was correct: both the gentleness and fierceness wrapped in struggle and hope. Rather than relay what he said, I’ll just share the video (above) of his remarks and discussion with fellow panelists. When the panel ended, I bum-rushed the stage to meet him. Of course, a small clutter already surrounded him, but I didn’t let that deter me. When it was my turn, I just said, “Thank you for everything you’ve done. You’ve had an immeasurable effect on my work as a teacher and activist, so thanks.”

OK, it probably wasn’t as eloquent, but I did ask him for a picture and told the amateur photographer: “I need this picture! This is my OG and he doesn’t even know it!” He let out a small chuckle and still took a few pictures with me for posterity. It was the first and last time I’d get to meet him. More recently, I was the opening speaker for the NCTM annual conference where he would be on a closing panel until he pulled out for personal reasons. In his absence, his co-panelists including the actor/activist Danny Glover asked us to dispel the current myths about educational justice, including current deleterious notions about the origins of public schooling for our Black and brown children.

Even when he was among us in the physical, it was evident that we were ill-equipped in some ways to meet the current challenges for both civil rights and educational justice. Now that he has risen as one of our ancestors, I always hope we can grab those lessons and apply them to our current context.

A few hours ago, my wife asked, pointedly, “Why don’t we hear more about him in our schools?” It’s a great question. People like me who’ve elevated his messages of mathematics as a key to 21st-century citizenship will have influenced thousands of people across the country (and the world?) to take up the mantle. Unfortunately, the educational zeitgeist generally fears authentic conversations about equity, even before local and state governments took on so-called “critical race theory” laws. Teaching the concentrated truth as a way forward has rarely been the objective of American educational institutions, especially in our math classrooms where decontextualized axioms still reign supreme over deep, contextual problem-solving.

The mere mention of alternative math histories seems to bring out the anxious conservative out of both-sides faux-moderates. Imagine telling the narrative of a Black kid from the projects who attended one of New York’s lauded institutions only to leave his teaching job to organize Black voters in Mississippi to students of similar circumstance. That’s misaligned with the centuries-long story of the American Dream. Telling children that they can actually do something with their education besides leave the hood doesn’t align with the saviorism that continues to pervade among inner-city Black and brown schools. There have been few instances in my lifetime when someone in the education space would mention his work in both civil rights and math education with equal clarity and intensity.

As if saving us from our squalor mattered more than deconstructing why that squalor exists, especially and disproportionately for Black children.

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